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Couple Builds Business with What Others Threw Away

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GREENVILLE, Pa. – Mark and Monica Brest would like to say they built their restaurant from recycled materials to help preserve the environment or for some other noble sounding reason. The truth is much simpler.

“We were really poor. Really, really, poor let me tell you,” says Monica as she laughs.

The Brests opened the Bent Fork in Greenville, Pa., three years ago with a budget of $30,000. “And $16,000 of it was for the heating and air conditioning,” Mark says.

With the remaining $14,000, the couple transformed a 60-by-120-foot garage into a restaurant that serves a feast for the stomach as well as the eyes.

“Because of our financial problems, I knew there was no way other than for me to recycle and to find anything that I could,” Monica says.

Old doors, scrap aluminum – even trees – have been meticulously reshaped and assembled to create their dining area unlike any other. Everything from the flooring to the walls and up to the ceiling – all are built from repurposed materials.

“We used a lot of doors,” Mark says. “I remember her coming home many times with a door hanging out the back of the vehicle.”

Several booths have been fashioned from bedposts and trees. The walls are lined with old doors that the couple painted. Doorframes Monica salvaged from a house fire separate the seats nearest the kitchen from the rest of the restaurant.

Mark tells of his wife showing up just as workers were about to tear down the remaining structure: “She said, ‘Can you wait a day? We want all the door openings.’ The crew obliged.”

Asked if there were any possibility that any aspect could have happened without recycling, Mark flatly answers “No. We couldn’t have bought all this stuff new.”

 

The Brests’ financial troubles began 10 years ago when Mark was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, the couple owned several food trucks that catered to the area. The cost of Mark’s treatment, coupled with his inability to put in the many hours he typically worked, resulted in them having to close the business.

With little money and fewer prospects, the couple took stock of what they did have, and one asset stood out: the tractor garage. Having a restaurant had always been a dream for the Brests, so Monica set herself to gathering the raw materials.

“I started collecting and collecting and my husband many times thought I was crazy. He said, ‘People just are not going to get this.’ ”

Her perseverance paid off.

“Once I convinced him, it just blew up,” says Monica, speaking in her typical mile-a-minute clip. “Everywhere I turned, there would be things I could grab or use. And yes, I was in a couple of dumpsters that I got permission to get in.”

The more laid back Mark admits to removing at least a few items without permission.

“Wherever they were remodeling, we’d go jump in the dumpsters at night,” he says, adding that when their activity drew attention, most of the time people “didn’t care. They’d say, ‘Take what you want. It’s going to the dump anyways.’ ”

While the Brests were acting solely out of pragmatism, they weren’t unaffected by the experience. Monica, a proud recycler, was astonished at the quantities of usable material that was discarded: “All this stuff just goes to the landfill and I think, ‘Why don’t they save that to help people?’ ”

A 2014 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found the average American throws away 4.4 pounds of trash every day. In one year the United States produces 700,000 tons of waste, enough to reach to the moon and back 25 times, a statistician at the EPA computed.

However, more and more Americans are beginning to think like the Brests.

Data from Planet Aid, a nonprofit that collects and recycles used textiles, found that in 2015 the U.S. recycling rate hit 34.3%, an all-time high, although it still lags other industrialized nations such as Taiwan (60%), Austria (63%) and Germany (62%).

“The more we became green and the more we recycled, I really gained an appreciation for what was wasted on this earth,” Monica says.

While they quickly mastered the art of finding materials – Mark says construction sites are particularly good places to look – the Brests still had their restaurant to build.

“When I was putting it together, it was a bare canvas,” Monica says. “It was all cement walls. Nothing else was here. This was a big rectangular space.”

Matters went even more slowly, she says, because while she can paint, she can’t draw.

“So I’d just kind of describe to [Mark] what was in my head and we’d go from there.”

One thing she envisioned was a chandelier made of teacups. Mark carefully drilled holes in the bottom of each to allow room for the light bulbs. About 10 of the chandeliers can be found throughout the restaurant.

“Drilling all those teacups was quite a job,” he says.

Another chandelier is fashioned from a tire rim, since affixed to the ceiling with one of Mark’s old chain pulleys.

“He decided to forfeit that and it allowed me to make a light,” Monica says.

When it came time to install the heating and air conditioning, a friend offered to help but had to leave before finishing the job.

“I said to Monica, ‘We gotta get this done.’ So we just started hanging it.”

“We just kind of took the pieces and did what we thought was right. So far it’s worked pretty good,” Mark says, sounding surprised.

After four years of work, the Brests completed the restaurant and, with their remaining $1,800, took a leap of faith.

“We had just enough money to buy the first order of food and get open,” he says. “All our friends supported us. So we made money and got rolling. Almost three years later and we’re staying.”

Today the Bent Fork specializes in what Monica calls “unique dishes and funky sandwiches,” but more often it’s the building itself that’s the subject of talk at the tables.

“You can’t describe it. It has to be seen,” says Sharon McCall of Sandy Lake. “It’s taken so much time and energy for them to do this and collect all this stuff. It’s wonderful.”

Samantha Hoffman, a server at the Bent Fork, came here the first time with her grandmother.

“She said she had to bring me here because of the art,” Hoffman says. “I remember walking in the front doors and realizing that I had to work here.”

As Monica sits in the restaurant she and her husband built, at a table she sanded by hand and painted, she can’t help but feel proud. “Because of our determination,” she says, “I think that’s truly why we finished it. People thought we were crazy.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.